Reality Bites

Reality Bites: Abby & Brittany

There are a million reality shows on the naked television. We're going to watch them all, one at a time.

I swear the first time I saw the TLC promo for Abby & Brittany, the reality show about 22-year old conjoined (technically "dicephalic parapagus") twins Abby and Brittany Hensel, I thought I'd hallucinated the entire thing. It wouldn't be first time; I had a dream as a teenager in which Cyndi Lauper was giving an interview in a perfectly normal, non-accented voice that was so real I remained convinced she talked like a regular human being well into college.

Looking back, I'm not sure why I was so skeptical. Even if the twins in question turned out to be normal in every other aspect other than their physical condition (which they are), how much of a goldmine is it for the network to have a show about a girl with two freaking heads? Can they possibly present the girls in anything close to a non-exploitative manner? More to the point, should they?


That the twins have lived this long is rather unusual for their condition (their parents elected not to go for separation surgery as the likelihood was high both wouldn't survive). And let's talk about that condition for second; each twin manages their respective side of the body -- Abby the right, Brittany the left -- making simple acts like walking, swimming or brushing hair a coordinated effort. They have the obvious two heads and neck, but also two hearts, two stomachs, two spinal cords, and four lungs. The hearts share a circulatory system, so any medicine ingested by one of the twins affects the other.

Neither appears to drink or do drugs. And while this would be...interesting to observe, it's probably for the best. The show works primarily because these girls aren't cloned Snookis. That would take the whole endeavor into dangerous territory. Like, dead rising from the grave, dogs and cats living together territory.

The show catches up with the two during their senior year at Bethel University. They're majoring in elementary education and experiencing the usual anxieties experienced by the imminent graduate (finding a job vs being forced to move back in with your parents), with the added complications that come from being conjoined twins. The show never touches on dating, but the prospect seems sensitive, to put it mildly. Also, can anyone with siblings imagine being forced not only to live with them, but cohabitate in the same room forever. I'd definitely need that second liver.

But interview they will. Spring break for the twins means a potential job in Houston. Mom is proud, while the twins clash with her over potential interview outfits (they're 22, after all). Abby and Brittany's position is also complicated by the reality that they can only draw one salary, as they realistically can only teach one class at a time. This would likely be the case anywhere, but it isn't helped any by Rick Perry's scorched earth education policy.

The twins, mom, and some family friends venture to the mall for interview clothes, and either they picked the one day of the year nobody else went shopping, or TLC rented out Palais Royal for a few hours. Not that feedback from our highly sophisticated populace are necessary for the audience's viewing pleasure, but these kids aren't growing up in a bubble (that would be an entirely different show, anyway), and TLC seems to be going to surprising lengths to winnow out any public reactions.

Not to be an asshole or anything, but if I walked past a girl with two heads in the Galleria, I doubt I could avoid doing a double-take.

Next up, it's off to their family friend's house to catch some rays, though as anyone who's spent March in Texas can tell you, Spring break is rarely hospitable (our camping trips suffered from regular downpours, and few things accentuate how miserable your college experience is compared to those in, say, Ft. Lauderdale like huddling rat-like in a pickup while your meticulously constructed beer can pyramid is washed away).

Anyway, the twins get a "conjoined" interview (with two school principals) with a local school district (probably HISD, but it's not specified). The interview isn't filmed, but apparently goes well. And why not? Abby and Brittany are perfectly pleasant, intelligent young women with the same predilections as most twins (finishing each other's sentences, for example). That the two have such distinct personalities takes some getting used to, but that's probably a result of my own expectations.

To be fair, TLC's approach to the Hensels' situation uses somewhat more restraint than that of their Honey Boo Boo show (that family, as least, is largely in circumstances of their own making). And I guess we've made some progress as a society when conjoined twins are at least paid for being paraded in front of gawking audiences. P.T. Barnum is probably rolling over is his grave, and that's not a bad thing.

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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar